Sunrise Bird Walk – March 15

15 03 2009
N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

N. Saw-whet Owl - Michael Ferrari

So much for my titling today’s walk ‘Spring Awakening’, apart from a load of raucous blackbirds there was little to make one think of spring and a cool and damp morning wasn’t setting much of a mood either. We started at Grace Salmon Park in Westport but without much sign of egrets or the shorebird or two that I had hoped for. OK there were a couple of Killdeer but it’s a stretch to think of them as shorebirds as they are seemingly just as happy mooching about on gravel parking lots at the Wilton Market as they are anywhere else in the world. The only birds of ‘note’ were some Pine Siskins, but after this year it’s hard to think of them as uncommon within the state.

Next stop was a quick one at Compo Beach where we were surprised by the sheer wealth of waterfowl on show.  There were a number of large flocks of Greater Scaup (I pointed out identification of the wing pattern to the group when the birds stretched their wings), hundreds of milling Long-tails and good sized numbers of many other species such as Red-breasted Mergansers, Horned Grebes and Brant. The pick of the gulls loitering offshore was a ‘Kumlien’s’ Iceland Gull which gave the group a good session on identification. Many of the group found the apparent darkness of the primaries surprising for a ‘white-winged’ gull although the name seemed more appropriate with nice flight views. We also went over the theories as to whether the gull is a subspecies or hybrid – answers on a postcard please gull experts. A brief explanation (here), at the present the AOU treats Kumlien’s as as a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

Over at Sherwood Mill Pond the ducks continued to impress with a large mixed Wigeon/Gadwall flock (no sign of the Eurasian). Sherwood Island itself was pretty quiet apart from offshore where a few flotillas of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebes as well as continuing ducks, many just offshore, were pretty impressive. The cool air and glassy water made viewing conditions almost perfect apart from a little fogginess further out. The only other bird of note a Greater Yellowlegs that certainly appeared to be a recent migrant  arriving from the south as it circled the marsh for a while deciding where to put down.

A quick coffee break (at which we added a calling Red Shouldered Hawk – right over Rt 1) and a few more spots and more waterfowl (I wonder if I am the only birder who has fantasized about one day birding the length of Rt 1 on one long crazy road trip – David Sibley meets Jack Kerouac style). Although we’d had some excellent views of some nice birds the tour would have not been the same had it not been for a fortunate spot as we explored a couple of local cedar/pine stands. I spotted a few large splashes of telltale whitewash and as I followed the wash up the branches there was perched a cute little Northern Saw-whet Owl. At 8 inches this really is one super cute little bird. As I’ve said before it’s always a thrill to find these birds and the first flash of those little eyes as you spot them gives one an unbelievable rush.  The group all had great looks at what was a life bird for a few involved and a treat for everyone. The group all took turns to have a minute or so with the little beauty and after a few memento shots we left him to his morning snooze.

It’s amazing how one bird can really make a morning out special, so even on the dreariest of days out (not that today was one) I always try to make sure to not let my head drop and keep looking at every bird, as you never know when that great bird might show up. I always remember that finding the Harris’s Sparrow at Allen’s was basically down to a last second change of plan after a disappointing soundwatch at Burying Hill Beach. I almost drove straight past Allen’s on the way home but decided to give it a quick try and make up for the rather fruitless morning. Always worth reminding yourself when you are out that with a little luck the next great bird might be just around the corner (or sat in the next tree!)

Trip Species List: Canada Goose, Brant, Mute Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser,  Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Horned Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Killdeer, Greater Yellowlegs, Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, KUMLIEN’S ICELAND GULL, Great Black-backed Gull,  Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Monk Parakeet, GREAT-HORNED OWL, NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Fish Crow, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren,  American Robin, European Starling, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common  Grackle, PINE SISKIN, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

Sunrise Birding Walk – Feb 15

18 02 2009

Another fun day out on the local walk. I arrived at Sherwood Island to hear the group declaring that there was a hawk stuck in the tree in the parking lot and asking whether we should get on the phone to a rehab specialist that I know. I could see the hawk was flapping around, but as I swung my scope into action to see what exactly the hawk was caught on, I realized it wasn’t caught on anything but rather was trying to get at something in a hole in the tree.

The Red-shouldered Hawk was flapping around the hole trying to get into it with his talons and then stopping every now and then to appraise the situation. It was amazing to watch and as the bird peered into the darkness, moving it’s head side to side to better appraise how to deal with the problem, it’s easy to see how they mold the actions of dinosaurs in movies like Jurassic Park when you see that kind of behavior. Eventually the bird lunged in and for a while it had the squirrels tail and was trying to yank him out using it’s beak ,but without much luck. As with most raptors the real strength lies in their talons and it eventually gave up on the meal and departed.

When I told my wife the story when I got home she said that she felt happy for the squirrel but kind of sad for the hawk as it was going hungry. I knew how she felt even though I am not a huge squirrel fan (especially when they wreck my feeders). It was an amazing episode to watch though and one of those incidents that you just feel lucky to stumble on.

It made me think of an incident a few years back at Sherwood when I had hiked in early to to be there at dawn and had seen a skunk scuttling back towards its daytime den. Spotting the mammal crossing open ground, one of the young resident Red-tails had noticed the seemingly easy meal and was swooping in for the kill. As I watched it close in on the skunk the skunk turned and gave it an almighty spray from its scent glands and the hawk visibly stalled in its attack path. The hawk recovered fairly quickly and renewed it’s attack but was met with another accurate burst and again it reeled backwards, after a third squirt the hawk quite obviously realized it had bitten off more than it could chew and decided to go look for a slightly more defenseless meal, at which point the skunk headed on it’s merry way home.  Apparently Great Horned Owls and Red-tails are the skunks most common predators. I would guess that the irritant factor (which can even cause temporary blindness) of the well directed spray was enough to deter this hawk. It’s these kind of fascinating things that you feel blessed to see when you are out in nature.

The rest of the walk was fun but with nothing Earth shattering in the way of birds. We had a couple of chipping Yellow-rumped Warblers that were new arrivals at Sherwood but probably weren’t early migrants but lingering fall birds that had wandered in from somewhere. The blackbirds however were migrating and those first flocks of Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds are to me the first real gauge of the beginning of spring. It’s a great moment when you get those first flocks winging their way north and as they move during the day, unlike many of their passerine brethren, they are a real visual sign of an exciting spring to come. Other highlights on the day were an adult Bald Eagle that I think Mike and Katie spotted first at Southport Beach and the regular (but still uncommon in North America) Lesser Black-backed Gull at Burying Hill Beach.

Post walk I stumbled upon a singing Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a somewhat unexpected sound on a still cold February Day (listen here) and an adult Kumlien’s (Iceland) Gull at Compo Beach in Westport (see dreadful pictures below). It was cool to see this adult as I haven’t seen that many previously. Obviously with gulls structure plays a key element in IDing the birds and this one has the typical dove like rounded head, cute expression as well as the small bill and longish primary projection.

Trip List

Horned Grebe, Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Brant, American Black Duck, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Long-tailed Duck, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, American Robin, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, American Tree Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Song Sparrow, DE Junco, Common  Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, European Starling, House Sparrow